IRRODL (2009) Trends and issues in open and distance learning in Africa, Vol. 10, No. 4
Just as I am about to leave for a United Nations University conference on Integrating e-learning in Higher Education, aimed primarily at African universities, IRRODL comes out with a whole edition focused on open and distance education in Africa.
The editors of this issue, Rashid Aderinoye, Richard Siaciwena, and Clayton R. Wright, in their editorial, ‘A snapshot of distance education in Africa‘ write:
‘Rapidly increasing demands for all levels and forms of education coupled with local and regional governments’ limited capacity to expand provision of education through traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions leave ODL as a viable option to address and match growing demand for education. It offers one way to increase the capacity of educational systems without incurring the cost of building facilities by allowing learners the flexibility to remain in their communities or in their duty post. Distance education was and is seen as one of the solutions to training education and health services personnel who are working full-time and who are unable to attend and/or afford to register in full-time residential institutions…..There are many successful ODL programs across the continent and there are efforts underway that aim to address the challenges of development. This edition of IRRODL presents a snapshot of distance education in Africa; it only covers a few of the many initiatives that have been recently completed or are in progress.’
The question arises of course as to how relevant information and communications technologies are to distance education in Africa, given the poor quality Internet infrastructure, the cost of computers, and the lack of access in remote or rural areas. Nevertheless some of the articles in this edition do discuss cases where ICTs were used.
For instance, there is an excellent article by Bopelo Boitshwarelo, of the University of Botswana, on an attempt to use blended learning for training of in-service science teachers. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, Boitshwarelo provides an excellent analysis of the cultural and pedagogical reasons why the experiment failed, and what could be done to make it work.
A paper by Jayshree Thakrar and Denise Zinn of the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, and Freda Wolfenden, of the
Open University, UK, describes how the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) consortium is working within institutional and national policy systems to support school-based teacher professional development. The TESSA consortium (13 African institutions and 5 international organisations delivering teacher education across 9 countries) designed and produced a bank of open educational resources (OERs) to guide teachers’ classroom practices in school-based teacher education. Drawing on examples from the TESSA consortium and from the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, the authors categorize the forms of TESSA OER integration as highly structured, loosely structured, or guided use. The paper concludes by outlining success factors for the integration of OERs: accessibility, adequate resources, support for teachers, accommodation of local cultural and institutional practices, and sustainable funding. It should be noted though that this paper does not include an evaluation of the actual use of OERs in the TESSA project.
The challenges in using ICTs for education in Africa though are most strongly highlighted in a devastating paper by Jean-Marie Muhirwa of Equitas – The International Centre for Human Rights Education, Canada, Teaching and Learning Against all Odds: A Video-Based Study of Learner-to-Instructor Interaction in International Distance Education.
His conclusions highlight the fact that we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again in countries with poor technology infrastructure, over-emphasising the technology and under-emphasising the pedagogy, the organization of the teaching, the need for learner support and the training of instructors to use the technology properly.
Also one of Jean-Marie Muhirwa’s conclusions was evident from some of the other papers. More traditional technologies such as print and broadcasting (radio and television) have more penetration and often work better for distance education than ICTs in developing countries, a point made very forcibly for some time by Jon Baggaley (see for instance his editorial in the the journal, Distance Education, Vol. 28, No. 2, August 2007 – unfortunately, not available on line).
The challenge though is that the increased interaction between students and instructors from online learning does more easily enable the development of skills such as critical thinking, knowledge construction and the ability to find, analyse and apply information that are now necessary in many knowledge-based jobs, and these jobs are desperately needed in Africa. Thus if ICTs are to be used in Africa, they need to be used very carefully, with a clear and appropriate target group and rationale for their use, combined with strong pedagogical design and technical support. Otherwise, the same old mistakes will be made over and over again.